Lifelong Mission Builds Bridges for Refugees

Story and Photo by Michael Barber

As a boy, young Charlie was reared by two loving parents, each having dedicated their life to ministry. His father, Rev. Charles Nichols, spent time as a missionary before leading a south Columbus church. His mother, a strong woman who challenged the 1950’s status quo by serving as clergy for a major central Ohio church, found her place among the children.

It will surprise few to know that it was First Community, under the leadership of Dr. Roy Burkhart, that was so welcoming of Charlie’s mother, Rev. Josephine Nichols.

“I had been raised in a minister’s home,” Charlie said. “My dad took me with him when he went calling. My faith became an active part of my life.”

“When we get together, we spend hours talking. He is like a second grandfather to me,” – Chafi Kehedy, Refugee, Chad

Charlie Nichols was never ordained. He did manage to choose an honorable path, however, through resistance. While in college in 1949, he denied the U.S. Military another post-war soldier by way of conscientious objection.

“I was interviewed by one of the military people, an important person in the Navy in charge of a giant destroyer,” Charlie said. “When he got done, he told me that he had never met a conscientious objector. He wanted to know what I thought and why I felt the way I did.”

“The government accepted my statement and did not send me to prison,” Charlie said. “Instead, I worked as a Service Project Volunteer with the Church of the Brethren for 2 years.”

His mission was to aid refugees and displaced persons in German post-war camps, helping them find new beginnings in unfamiliar surroundings. Even though the war had ended some years ago, Charlie remembers the site of rubble and bombed-out cities.

“It opened up my life,” Charlie said.

After service to German refugees, Charlie returned to Ohio. He soon found himself falling in love with an attractive Japanese girl.

“I met her at The Ohio State University,” Charlie said. “She said she didn’t want anything to do with me. After a month of seeing me in class, we went out for hot chocolate. As a result, we got married.”

Charlie smiles while telling the story.

He graduated from OSU and worked with the State as a counselor to handicapped people. His first major job was to help clients find appropriate employment.

“Everyone had a serious limitation of some sort and they wanted to work,” he said. “I found it easy to do and personally rewarding to be able to do it. I wanted to do something that was spiritual. Dealing in the business of helping people becoming successful is fulfilling.”

Charlie’s mother, still deeply rooted at First Community, suggested that he and his new wife would benefit from attending FCC. They left his father’s southside Columbus church and never looked back.

Years later, in 1982, Charlie became one of the founders of the still-active Refugee Task Force at First Community.

“Columbus has been a focus for refugees for a long time,” he said. “It all started because we welcomed refugees at First Community.”

At 85, Charlie is unable to count the number of individuals and families he has helped throughout the years. Carol Meyer, Chair of the Refugee Task Force, is quick to illustrate Charlie’s impact on so many lives.

“Charlie has been a true ambassador from First Community to the refugee community in Columbus,” Carol said. “Looking over years of photos, you see Charlie with a welcome sign at the airport, posing with families in their new apartments, sitting on the floor and eating exotic cuisine, attending weddings, graduations, sitting through church services in Russian and Zomi (Burmese dialect), delivering coats and Oxford picture dictionaries and just sharing a comforting cup of tea.”

One family has relied on Charlie significantly since 2007. In the fall of that year, fifteen-year-old Chafi Kehedy and his father, Samen, arrived in Columbus, Ohio from the Republic of Chad, Africa.

Chafi’s mother, a physician, had died when he was a boy. Samen, a college professor who had lived in several countries, required Charlie’s special brand of compassion and patience.

“I personally taught his father how to speak English,” Charlie said. “He already knew the language, but he was speaking with a speech pattern of the countries he lived in, like the Belgian Congo. No one could pick out a single word in English. They thought he was speaking African or French.”

Chafi, now 25, remembers Charlie’s frequent visits to their north Columbus home.

“When we first came to this country, Charlie helped my father to speak English more clearly,” Chafi said. “He would record our conversations so we could play them back when he left. When I was growing up, I saw Charlie several times a week. Now, I don’t see him as often. But when we get together, we spend hours talking.”

“He is like a second grandfather to me,” Chafi said.

Chafi has benefited from his relationship with Charlie, the Refugee Task force and also FCC’s Camp Akita. He spent 2 years as a camper before being hired as a camp counselor.

“I am forever grateful for the chance to have enjoyable summers, meet great people and make friends,” Chafi said. “My experiences at camp helped me become a better person.”

Chafi is attending Denison University in Granville, Ohio with a goal of becoming a doctor. He hopes to join Doctors without Borders and return to Chad to serve those in his hometown.

Charlie is determined to help Chafi succeed. Finances are a challenge, with nearly $40,000 still needed in order for Chafi to graduate. Both are hopeful that generous donors from the church and wider community will chip in to see Chafi’s dream fulfilled.

“This family is one of the star families I’ve worked with,” Charlie said. “He is an excellent student and so brilliant.”

In this day of uncertainty, where refugees from all countries often find themselves the topic of great debate in the U.S., those fortunate enough to meet Charlie at the end of their journey will find a warm welcome.

“The refugees know he is their friend,” Carol said. “Whether I’m visiting Uzbek Russians, the Burmese or the Bhutanese-Nepali, the question always arises with a sincere smile, ‘How’s Charlie?’”

On Sunday, January 22, Charlie Nichols was presented with the First Community Church’s Albert Schweitzer Award by Dr. Richard Wing in recognition of his service to the Refugee Task Force. In the April edition of ‘firstnews’, historian Jackie Cherry will write about Charlie’s mother, Rev. Josephine Nichols, and her impact on FCC. Donations for Chafi’s education can be made by contacting Charlie at (614) 486-1769